WildEarth Guardians works to recover natural areas, save taxpayer money and create jobs by restoring unneeded forest roads to their natural state.
Rewilding Campaign Mission:
We reclaim places for the wild and reconnect wildlife habitat and waterways across the American West.
Rewilding Campaign Vision:
Wildlife, fish and water are free from the influences of the Forest Service’s road network—the most extensive in the world—and from the effects of motorized vehicles.
Roads—and the way they are maintained and used—are one of the most serious factors in the health of our national forests today. People often think of the Forest Service as one of the largest wild land managers in the world, yet it holds the dubious distinction of being the largest road manager, having 372,000 miles of system roads—nine times as much as our Federal Highway System. Many of these roads are a legacy of the frontier days of logging and are no longer needed. In addition, there are tens of thousands of miles of unofficial roads on national forests.
Many animals require large, intact blocks of land to survive, yet roads dramatically cut the size of those blocks of land into small pieces. Roads create barriers that disrupt natural migrations of elk, bear, lynx, amphibians, and salmon and bull trout. Runoff from roads dirties our streams and rivers, and destroys essential fish habitat. Poachers, fire igniters, off-road vehicles (ORVs) and snowmobiles gain easy access to pristine lands via roads. And, roads pollute community drinking water with sediment.
Roads can also fail catastrophically and slide downhill when unstable fill becomes super-saturated. Here is an example from the Kootenai NF, where water from a seep (upper left of photo) saturated a road, leading to a complete failure.
Why Roads Matter
The impacts of the national forest road network cannot be overstated and have been well documented in scientific reports and in the Forest Service’s own studies. Just a few of the effects of the Forest Service’s huge road network include:
- Roads contribute more sediment to streams than any other land management activity.
- Surface erosion rates from roads are
typically at least an order of magnitude (10 times greater) greater than rates
from logged areas, and three orders of magnitude (1000 times) greater than
erosion rates from undisturbed forest soils.
- Increased sedimentation in streambeds has been linked to decreased fry emergence, decreased juvenile densities, loss of winter carrying capacity, and increased predation of fish.
- Roads can also act as barriers to fish migration.
- Roads and trails impact wildlife through: direct mortality (poaching, hunting/trapping) changes in movement and habitat use patterns (disturbance/avoidance), as well as indirect impacts including alteration of the adjacent habitat and interference with predatory/prey relationships.
- Roads and motorized trails also play a role in affecting wildfire occurrence. Research shows that human-ignited wildfires, which account for more than 90% of fires on public lands, are almost five times more likely in areas with roads.
- The Forest Service admits its road system has about one-third more miles than it needs.
- 82% of the road system is inaccessible to passenger vehicles. 55% of the roads are accessible only by high clearance vehicles and 27% are closed. The 18% that are accessible to cars are used for about 80% of the trips made within national forests.
In 2010, the Forest Service analyzed the condition of all 15,065
sub-watersheds it manages. In the course of that analysis, it became even
clearer that roads are a serious ecological problem. The agency ranked
sub-watersheds in poor, fair or good condition. Across the U.S., 67% of the
sub-watersheds—or 10,166 sub-watersheds—ranked as poor or fair condition due to
roads. The maps below shows the effects of roads on watersheds managed by the
Forest Service in New Mexico (a dry climate) and Washington (a wet climate). Notice
the preponderance of “poor” condition, or red, watersheds. These maps, along
with the Forest Service’s own assessment, show that there is no possibility of
having healthy, fully-functioning watersheds without addressing roads.
maps above and below show the results of the Forest Service’s analysis of
watershed conditions based on the effects of roads. Red equals poor condition,
yellow equals fair condition, and green equals good condition.
Campaign Successes To-Date
- Spurred the Forest Service to implement the Travel Management Rule, which opened the door for rewilding our heavily roaded national forests by reclaiming unneeded, ecologically damaging forest roads.
- Protected 50 million acres of national forest land from the abuses of cross-country off-road vehicles.
- Created the National Legacy Roads and Trails program with partners and Congressman Norm Dicks (WA) in 2008 to ensure a dedicated federal funding stream for road restoration in national forests. The Forest Service uses the funds to reduce impacts to wildlife and streams by decommissioning roads, maintaining and storm-proofing needed roads, restoring fish passage, and improving trails.
- Secured $390 million to-date in total appropriations for the Legacy Roads Program through committed, annual advocacy. For the last two years, the President’s Budget did not include the LRT line item, yet we successfully worked with our congressional champions to ensure its inclusion in final spending bills.
- Legacy Roads and Trails projects completed in 2008-2014 (Fiscal Years) yielded the following accomplishments:
- Enforced the Travel Management Rule through 17 successful lawsuits limiting motorized vehicle access on national forests around the west, with an additional 6 pending.
- Our Rewilding team is nationally renown as the experts on protecting wildlife habitat and waterways from the effects of motorized vehicles and roads on national forests.
- Decommissioned 5,992 miles of unneeded roads to reconnect habitat and greatly reduce the delivery of sediment to streams;
- Maintained and/or storm-proofed 15,463 miles of needed roads to increase their ability to stand-up during powerful storms and ensure safe access;
- Restored fish passage at 965 sites to provide fish and other aquatic species access to more than 1,000 miles of upstream habitat;
- Constructed or reconstructed 136 bridges for safety;
- Upgraded or fixed 4,091 miles of trails to guarantee recreationists can reliably use the areas they love;
- Created or maintained an average of 800-1,200 jobs annually; and
annual road maintenance costs by approximately $3.5 million per year.
- Bibliographic Database: This database can be searched, using key words, to identify articles on specific types of off-road vehicle impacts. The database contains over 20,000 citations, from peer-reviewed published literature and from grey literature, regarding a very broad array of ecological impacts of roads and off-road vehicles.
- Bibliography Notes: Click here to search our resources database for literature reviews about the ecological effects of roads. We have nearly 50 short, fully-cited, easy to read reviews on a broad scope of off-road vehicle impacts – covering topics as broad-ranging as the spread of noxious weeds, impacts to individual species like shore-birds, air quality problems, etc. If you click on “biblio notes” in the “filter” section, it will pull up all of our quarterly literature reviews.
- Fact Sheets about road impacts: Click here for a series of fact sheets about road impacts.
- Road Reclamation: Measuring Success: This 2012 report documents how successful road reclamation is at reducing stream sedimentation. The report is based on a multi-year field study program in implementation by the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.
- Field Notes: We have several different types of road impact field monitoring forms available to help interested citizens or activists document off-road vehicle impacts. Please contact our office if you are interested in this type of information.
- Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative is a coalition of Washington state conservationists, tribes and state agencies focused on reestablishing and maintaining healthy aquatic and forest ecosystems in national forests through maintenance, repair, and reclamation of forest roads and culverts. WildEarth Guardians leads the WWRI, which provides critical advocacy for the Legacy Roads and Trails program.
Photo credits: Gold Creek, MT: Mark Alan Wilson. Kootenai NF: WildEarth Guardians.
Our National Forests have more than 400,000 miles of roads slicing through them. With only enough money to maintain 15-20% of these roads, road removal is a necessity, not an option on national forest lands.
The Forest Service alone estimates they will decommission up to 186,000 miles of roads during the next 20-40 years. Many methods exist to decommission roads, from ripping up the road bed to completely recontouring the land.
Just closing or blocking closed roads is often ineffective. Four wheel drive vehicles often ignore posted closures, and even cut locks and remove gates to ride on closed routes.
Removing roads is the first step towards comprehensive watershed restoration. It is the best and most long-term solution for restoring fish and wildlife habitat in natural areas.
Understanding road construction helps in understanding road removal. The road prism is the entire road, from the outer end of the fill slope to the outer end of the cutslope. This is the most common form of road construction.
The Forest Service restoration program employs the same heavy equipment operators that originally built the roads. If properly funded, the road restoration program could provide more than 3,000 high-paying jobs per year.
One of the key aspects of removing a road is restoring the streams to their natural beds wherever the road crossed them. This helps prevent sedimentation, restore the system's natural water flow, and reconnect fish habitat.
In many instances, it’s important to rip the road bed itself to allow water to infiltrate and vegetation to re-establish and thrive on the old road bed.
In some cases, roads are fully recontoured and the land is returned to its original condition.
After the road is ripped or recontoured, volunteers or Forest Service employees revegetate the land with native species to ensure proper restoration.
Woody debris is also often laid along the recontoured slopes. This debris helps hold the soil in place and encourage revegetation.
While restoration is expensive, it can save a lot of money in the long-run. It enhances clean water for fish and healthy fisheries, and also for communities.
From 2008-2014, Congress invested $350 million to improve water quality. This funding has been used to reclaim more than 5,992 miles of unneeded roads and to fix more than 15,463 miles of roads we do need reducing annual road maintenance costs by $3.5 million/year and reducing water filtration costs for municipalities.
Restoration also improves wildlife habitat. Roadless forests offer better hunting opportunities, longer hunting seasons, and better muscle-powered recreation and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Removing roads and restoring the land to its original contour can leave a place looking almost untouched. We must take every opportunity to restore native ecosystems and biodiversity by removing and revegetating wildland roads.